We here at Lost Laowai are card-carrying 沙发土豆, and as such suffered with hours of card-board programming on CCTV9 before discovering these tips to watching good English entertainment in China.
Unless you live in an expat enclave, you very likely suffer through China’s basic (and we do mean basic) cable packages. 40+ channels of shite packaged in one of four basic flavours: Japanese occupation drama, Dynastic period drama, cheesy variety show or heavily (ahem) “focused” news.
And while this may be a source of entertainment for 20 minutes on a hotel TV, or as “cultural immersion” for the first week or two after arriving, in the long-term, it just doesn’t cut it.
As such, here are a few methods to keep your average expat entertained while living in China.
For the last few years, this was Lost Laowai’s goto way of finding movies and TV shows to watch online. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the method is dying a slow death — at least in its current, somewhat seedy, form.
This method is largely driven by the slack policing of Chinese video sharing giant, Youku.com. Users could upload virtually anything and unlike its US brethren, Youku didn’t censor based on copyright infringement. This is changing, and many TV shows and movies that were on the site are now gone. Not all of them though.
The site can be a little intimidating if your Chinese isn’t great, but fortunately the design of search boxes are universal, and many shows can be searched by their English names.
Because the servers are on this side of the GFW, streaming offers very little delay.
A more English-friendly and organized method of browsing shows on Youku is to use a site like Videostic.com. Videostic categorizes all the TV shows into series and season, and makes it dead easy to navigate. It, unfortunately, relies on Chinese video sharing sites to serve up the videos, and so is also falling prey to increased policing.
Similar to Videostic is Channel 131, though we found the streaming in China to be a bit slow. If you’re not in a rush, finding what you want to watch and doing the pause’n'wait method will get you there though.
Downloading entertainment via torrents is a fast and easy way to get exactly what you want. There is a little bit of overhead than the streaming methods, but its no more complicated than installing a BitTorrent client. Here’s a step by step:
- Choose a BitTorrent client (we love µTorrent) and install it on your computer.
- Head over to a BitTorrent search engine (access to these tends to change frequently, but at the time of writing, EZTV and KickAssTorrents.com are great).
- Once you’ve found the item you’re looking for, be sure to check the ratio between seeds and leechers. The reason torrent downloads are so fast is that a large file is broken up into small pieces. Seeds (or Seeders) are people who have finished the whole download, but continue to allow access for others to download the pieces. Leechers are people who have not finished downloading the entire file (or files) and so cannot give you access to all the pieces. Basically, the more seeds to leechers, the better.
- The other thing to check before downloading the torrent is the comments. Occasionally items are added that are fakes, but the comments usually reveal these in a timely manner.
- The last step is simply downloading the .torrent file. Keep in mind, this isn’t the actual end-file (ie. an AVI or MP4 file), but rather just a file that contains the information your torrent client needs to download that end file. Open the .torrent file in your torrent client and it should do the rest.
The above two methods can (depending on the content) encroach on copyright infringement (see our disclaimer at the bottom of this article). If you’re looking for a decent source of entertainment that is 100% legal, video podcasts might be the way to go.
Video podcasts are basically programming created specifically for an online audience. Podcasts vary greatly in length and quality. Some are short snippets from a larger offline show, some are full-length programs produced wholly for online consumption, and many many more fit somewhere in between.
Like with torrents, you will need a bit of software to handle podcasts — fortunately few computers don’t have a copy of iTunes on it these days. iTunes is great, but if you’re looking for something more “open sourcey”, check out Miro.
Whichever software you use, you’ll be able to add a video podcasts’ “feed” and set up basic options for telling the software whether or not to auto-download new podcast episodes and whether or not to keep the old/watched episodes.
Also like torrents, podcasts will require a download and so a certain amount of foresight on what you want to watch is advised. Because podcast sizes vary greatly, it’s impossible to say here how long a show will take to download, but on a good high-speed connection, you can set up a number of podcasts to download while you’re at work, and they’ll be waiting for you when you get home.
Where to Find Podcasts?
Most serious podcasters get themselves on iTunes for its large built-in distribution, so searching iTunes would be a good start. Also check out Revision3.com, a larger producer of podcasts on a wide range (though tech-slanted) of topics. Also check with some of your favourite networks from home — more and more are offering podcast/online content.
Here are a few podcasts that regularly find their way onto screens around Lost Laowai HQ:
- The Hour: A CBC show hosted by George Stroboulopoulos. The Hour’s podcasts are essentially the TV show, chopped into segments that each feature a different interviewee. The show interviews some pretty interesting people. Past guests have included the likes of Bono, Noam Chomsky, Spike Lee, Sarah Palin, Richard Dawkins and David Suzuki.
- Penn Point: Penn Point is the vlog of Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame). “It’s an ongoing virtual conversation about what’s going on around us. And now you can get a front row seat to his witty, informative, and prolific points of view! Penn has a point that he wants to make…and you won’t want to miss it.”
- R3TV: CBC Radio 3 presents a video podcast that features a weekly mix of Canadian music, comedy, and tales from the screwed-up studio that brings you the breaking new sounds you love.
- ROFL: Your weekly comedy fix, ROFL brings you hilarious standup comedy from around the world with the biggest names and up-and-comers in comedy.
- Scam School: If Harvard offered a PhD in deceit, this would be it. Award-winning magician Brian Brushwood takes viewers on an inside tour of bar tricks, street cons, and scams. If you watch carefully, you’ll never have to pay for a drink again!
- The Totally Rad Show: The Totally Rad Show is the summer blockbuster of geek news shows. Every week, hosts Alex Albrecht, Dan Trachtenberg, and Jeff Cannata rip into the world of movies, video games, tv, comics, and more and pull out what’s rad.
Enhanced Cable + Satellite
While neither of these options are free, they are generally widely available. Enhanced cable is handled right through your regular cable TV provider and will usually get you a boatload of non-Mainland Chinese shows, HBO, HK MTV, National Geographic, and a variety of news channels (CNN, BBC, MSNBC) that mysteriously go dark occasionally.
While we think there must be legit satellite services in China, the far more common option is to get a dish and a hacked box from a local provider. Beams are generally services from the Philippines, Singapore and Hong Kong. Usually you buy the dish and the box for a couple thousand RMB, and you’re good to go. Sometimes a small annual online subscription enables automatic updates to the hacked box.
The Slingbox Solution
Also not strictly a “free” solution, reader Laura just wrote in and reminded us of the incredibly useful Slingbox. This device allows you to stream a TV signal anywhere in the world, via the Internet, to your computer. Here’s the product description:
With a wave of a virtual magic wand, the Slingbox place-shifts the television signal from an antenna, cable box, satellite receiver, DVR, and more to your PC via the Internet, whether you’re at home or 3,000 miles away. Thanks to the Slingbox, you can enjoy your home TV programming wherever you are: the office, a hotel room, your garden, even the bathroom–anywhere there is an Internet connection.
You even get full control over the source, from changing channels and viewing recorded content to fast-forwarding or setting up a season pass. You truly can watch and control your television anytime, anywhere–the power is in your hands.
Obviously this is only a solution if you maintain a house with a cable/satallite service back home, or if you have a friend or family member that wouldn’t mind you tapping into theirs. It’s a fantastic way to have full access to all your favourite channels from home though.
Be sure to check out our series of blog posts on “How-to: Setup an HTPC for better TV in China”
If you have any other methods for gaining access to entertainment in China, please let us know and we’ll happily add it here.